Friday, August 29, 2008

a Spruce Grouse for Wayne and his grandson

You may recall a while ago when my friend Wayne Rohde mentioned his Spruce Grouse adventure on the Wisconsin Birding List. Well, Wayne's my guest blogger here, let's let him tell the story in more detail:
A Spruce Grouse for Boompa
By Wayne Rohde

As I type, I hold in my hands my cherished third edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds.

It’s a personalized guide. And a very personal guide.

Long ago, when I was in high school, I attached little colored tabs to the 60 plates of bird paintings, scattered here and there throughout the guide. It was my attempt to more easily and quickly navigate my way around the field guide. This book, the birder’s “Bible,” also sports a plastic cover, designed to afford it a measure of protection against all sorts of hazards – like falling in the creek more than once. Its discolored cover now bears several scars and cracks, and not a little Scotch tape. To say it’s well-used is an understatement of understatements.

My Peterson is inscribed with a brief and simple note from my Uncle Dave & Aunt Neva, in the distinctive cursive of my Uncle Dave – the one who introduced me to birding:

To Wayne, Don, & Lynn
Good Birding!
--- from Neva & Dave

I carried this guide with me when I found my first Savannah Sparrow on my parents’ Green County farm in July of 1968, just one year after I started watching birds. And this treasured book has traveled far and wide with me to all sorts of special places around the state.

To this day I continue to enter the first sighting of every species I’ve ever seen or heard in its “My Life List” section. The next to last such entry is for the Blue Grosbeak I observed and photographed this past May in Rock County, during one of the WSO preconvention field trips.

Most entries list only the month and year, but several also include the initials “DB” – an indicator that my Uncle Dave was with me when I came across some of the birds for the first time. In point of fact, on such occasions he was undoubtedly the one who spotted and identified the “new” species - such as Great Blue Heron and what were once called American Egret, Baldpate and Marsh Hawk in April of 1969 (undoubtedly all at Horicon Marsh). All told, DB appears next to at least 15 species.

Other names appear as well – such as Dr. Weir next to Rough-legged Hawk and (what was once called) Hungarian Partridge (I’m told Dr. Weir, himself a birder, is the one who delivered me; perhaps his love of birding rubbed off on me the very day of my birth!), Daryl Tessen next to Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Tom Schultz next to Thayer’s Gull, and Noel Cutright next to White-winged Crossbill. One of my favorite memories is of my first encounter with a Stilt Sandpiper east of Walworth in August of 1999; next to this line I’ve recorded the simple words, “with Jessica” – a reference to the fact that my daughter Jessica was with me at the time. What a treat!

Just moments ago, as I reviewed my notes, I noticed that I saw my first Common Loon in Canada, back in 1972, and my first Bohemian Waxwing in Door County in March of 2001.

In a way, then, my field guide serves as a sort of diary. Perusing the various dates and notations jogs my memory, and helps me piece together quite a host of memorable events from days gone by.

It’s no wonder that the page after my uncle’s greeting I’ve filled a page with my name, postal address, phone number, and email address … followed by these words in “caps”


Fast forward to late June of 2008…

Our family was eagerly awaiting a July two-week camping outing north of Rhinelander, and my mind raced with visions of finding Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadee (birds I’d never yet seen), as well as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Connecticut Warbler, LeConte’s Sparrow, Ruffed Grouse, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Whip-poor-will, Gray Jay, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpoll and Evening Grosbeak (birds not yet seen in 2008).

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers proved plentiful, as did Winter Wrens at our campground of choice: Fort Wilderness. While there I also happened upon Common Loon, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Blue-headed Vireo, Hermit Thrush, and Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green and Pine Warblers – northern birds seen during spring migration, but not since. I awakened to the squawks of juvenile Common Ravens each morning. I could live for such mornings.

An early morning trip to Thunder Marsh north of Three Lakes netted me Lincoln’s and LeConte’s Sparrows (I absolutely love the song of the former bird, while the latter is but a dry, almost inaudible, insect-like buzz), and an afternoon outing to the Giant Pine Trail in the Nicolet Forest added the elusive Connecticut Warbler to my year list (I discovered it in dense underbrush, as it walked along a fallen log). I also came across a Ruffed Grouse while traveling between Rhinelander and Three Lakes. The grouse walked right in front of our van, and I quickly lowered the window to snap a photo of it, before it crossed the ditch and disappeared into the nearby woods.

Yes, I love Wisconsin’s Northwoods! And I was ecstatic that my grandson Oliver gladly accompanied me on a July 6 afternoon when we walked the trail to Cranberry Point at Fort Wilderness.

Oliver and I stopped now and then, to play detective, just as my Uncle Dave and I paused years ago, to investigate this or that. When we arrived at “the Point,” Oliver ran to the end of a small pier, and sat there watching reflections in the water. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and just the type of lazy summer day to “take our good old time.” So we poked along, pausing frequently … Oliver, to enjoy his newly-found walking stick … and I, to capture any scene I deemed photo-worthy (my Canon 28-135mm equivalent lens was perfect for such walk-about photos). Neither of us was in a hurry. We had nowhere to go.

But all good things must end, and we finally made our way back down the trail toward civilization – where we heard the distant sounds of people enjoying the sand beach along Spider Lake.

And that’s precisely when Oliver yelled, “Boompa! What’s that chicken?”

“Chicken?” I thought to myself, “What’s a chicken doing out here in a place like this?”

But almost immediately I saw what four-year-old Oliver had seen: a grouse.

Miffed that my camera only had a short lens on it (instead of the 110-480mm equivalent which I normally use for bird photography), I aimed and shot. Then I shot about four more times, and “bingo,” the grouse vanished in the dark woods.

“That,” I told Oliver, “is a Ruffed Grouse!”

As we made our way the 100 feet or so to where the grouse had been, I scanned the forest with my binocular, hoping to relocate it. And, to my surprise, I was successful! But something didn’t look quite right: particularly the rusty-tipped tail, and the generally blackish background coloration of the bird. Could it be…?

There was only one thing to do: get back to the camper as quickly as Oliver’s stride would allow (I’m not sure his feet hit the ground!) to view enlargements of the bird on my camera’s LCD.

Yes, that’s when I conclusively determined that the grouse Oliver had spotted was a Spruce Grouse! Yes, a SPRUCE GROUSE!!! A prize find for any Northwoods birder! A “lifer” for me!!!

About two hours later that same afternoon I received a cell phone call, while walking the shoreline of Spider Lake, that my Aunt Neva had just passed away – pretty much at the same time Oliver found me my Spruce Grouse. Sunday afternoon, July 6, 2008.

My Uncle Dave passed away some 15 years ago. But I’d like to think that the love of birds planted in me over 40 years ago lives on, not only for my daughters, but also for my grandson Oliver … who often reminds me of that special day about two months ago: “Hey, Boompa! Remember when I found that Spruce Grouse?”

Do I remember?

How could I forget?

I couldn’t wait to get home, take Peterson’s third edition from the shelf, and write next to Spruce Grouse the words, “July 2008 – spotted by Oliver – the dream lives.”

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